The American Freshman: A Survey of New College Students

The American Freshman (2015)Last Thursday the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California Los Angeles released “The American Freshman,” a report based on a fall 2014 survey of over 150,000 first-time, full-time students at 227 four-year colleges and universities (out of 1.6 million nationwide). What did HERI learn? Its executive summary highlighted a few findings:

  • More students opt for early action in the admissions process, but about 23% say there’s “some” or a “very good” chance that they’ll transfer to another school (and that number goes up to 30% at less selective institutions)
  • More students are aspiring to graduate degrees: 44% to a master’s, 33% to a Ph.D., Ed.D., M.D., or J.D. First-generation students are more likely to expect that they’ll stay at their baccalaureate institution for graduate school.
  • More students than ever before — 27.5% — are indicating that they have no religious preference, though that percentage is roughly cut in half for students at Catholic and other religious private colleges. And, for what it’s worth, the 35.7% who rate themselves as above average or better compared to peers in terms of “spirituality” is almost ten points lower than the result when that item first appeared in this survey in the late 1990s.

It is striking how several of these numbers have changed over time. For example, here’s forty years of survey results for religious preference from the HERI report:

Graph showing first-time full-time college students indicating no religious preference, 1971-2014
The American Freshman, p. 10

But the historical data don’t always reveal substantial movement, as John Hawthorne pointed out over the weekend in a post at his blog (using a typically well-done Chronicle of Higher Education tool that lets you play with the HERI data):

If you follow higher education stories in the media, if you listen to consultants, or if you hear speeches from university administrators, you know that today’s students are different than those in past generations. They are primarily concerned about jobs more than liberal arts. They are narcissistic and materialistic. In short, they’ve made education a means to an end, so we in higher education simply need to adapt to the new realities or face extinction.

This rhetoric is hard to reconcile with those things we call facts.

Among other facts, John points out that while over 80% of the students surveyed agreed that getting a better job was an important reason for going to college, that number has been over 70% for all but one year of the survey (1976). “So while there has been an increase,” he concludes, “it’s a matter of degree and not a stark change in ideology.”

In addition, students are, if anything, more likely now than in the 1980s or 1990s to say that gaining a general education and “appreciation for ideas” is an important reason for going to college. And while the 10.3% of first-time students indicating that they plan to focus their studies on arts and humanities makes that group as small as it’s been in the life of this survey, that number has never reached 17% — and it’s been around 12-13% for most of the last forty years.

(Incidentally, this survey confirms a trend previously reported by HERI: business is not the growth field it’s sometimes made out to be. Under 15% of these students plan to choose such a major, down from 18% as recently as 7-8 years ago and far behind the 25% figures of the mid-1980s.)

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